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My PhD

The Author as a Critical Category, 1850-1900


My thesis is an exploration some of the theoretical, historical and practical problems posed by the use of the notion of “the author” in literary criticism. When considering a literary work, the “author” can be considered a “critical category” to the extent that any interpretive consequences are drawn from it that could not have been drawn from the text (i.e. the character sequence) of the work alone. The idea raises a number of philosophical, historical and interpretive issues that are explored in chapter 1, 2, and 3-4 respectively.

The first chapter argues that the problematic status of the notion of “author” within criticism is a subset of a more general issue in aesthetics: what a literary work is. Some critical protocols subscribe, explicitly or implicitly, to a “thin” ontology in that they take the literary work as a linguistic entity, the “text”, which can in principle be defined by its formal features without any reference to context; other protocols imply a “thicker” ontology, in that they hold that literary meanings depend inescapably on contextual information. To use “the author” as a critical category means to subscribe implicitly to a “thick” ontology. The chapter reviews the relevant theorisation in literary theory (Barthes, Foucault, etc.) and analytical aesthetics (the debates between “textualists” and “contextualists”), without choosing one view over the other, but rather bringing out the presuppositions and consequences of each protocol.

The second chapter attempts a historical overview of the uses of the notions of “the author” in British and French culture in the 1850-1900 period. The dominant paradigm at the time is dubbed “authorialist”, in the sense that it considered the author as always relevant for one’s understanding of the literary work, whether the author’s agency was considered as a matter of expression, of intention or of unconscious determination. A case is made for this tendency being a part of a larger trend within that culture to consider phenomena as defined by the nature of their genesis, (a trend which can be seen in critical orientations otherwise as different from one another as Positivism and late-Romanticism). It is argued that a number of critics tended to attribute value to those rhetorical features that facilitated author-based readings, and to find fault with those that resisted them.

The remaining two chapters propose a series of close readings of literary works of the same area and period, and analyse their early critical reception. The focus is on the issue of whether and how their textual features comply with or resist the “authorialist” readings to which they were subjected. It is argued that many of these works (I chose to focus on authors associated with the Decadence: A.C. Swinburne, Walter Pater, Octave Mirbeau, Oscar Wilde) contain rhetorical features that tend to complicate the assumptions of contemporary criticism (as brought out by the sometimes bitter debates spawned by their publication), by foregrounding the extent to which literary meaning is independent of the author as a pre-existing determining subject.